|The Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala deflects a shot in practice. (Margaret Sheridan/SLAM! SPORTS)
The Maple Leafs are breathing easier in the standings and today they added a big gulp of fresh, cold air.
Coming off points in eight of 10 games, capped by Monday’s 5-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers, they held a half hour outdoor practice in the refurbished Ramsden Park rink in downtown Toronto.
With tempertures hovering at the freezing mark and a couple of Leafs jamming tuques over their helmets, the players went through a regular workout and kibitzed with kids from local Brown and Jesse Ketchum Public Schools.
“I haven’t played pond hockey since I was young,” said winger Phil Kessel, who comes from cold climes in Madison, Wisc. “This was fun. My parents used to take me out on the pond, but I can’t tell you the last time before this.”
Added winger Alexei Ponikarovsky: “It’s a good way for kids to enjoy the opportunity of a new rink. I didn’t have that opportunity when I was small. It’s nice to be outside, to practice in the fresh air.”
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and the Rona hardware chain jointly funded the rink’s improvements.
Also in attendance were former captain Wendel Clark and several members of the Leafs’ alumni, who skated with the schoolchildren after the NHLers departed.
The Leafs take on the New York Islanders tomorrow, hoping to capture consecutive home games for the first time this season. Though coach Ron Wilson refused to meet with media for the second straight off-day to comment on his team’s progress and possible lineup changes, it’s expected the club will stand pat for Wednesday’s game.
That would see goaltender Vesa Toskala make a second start after blanking the Thrashers for most of Monday’s game, while defenceman Garnet Exelby stays in the lineup, as does centre Rickard Wallin.
The Isles’ game will also be the last one before Toronto general manager Brian Burke’s self-imposed holiday trade embargo, which comes 10 days before the league commences its official eight-day roster freeze of trades, demotions and waiver deals during Christmas.
There has been a noticeable swing in attitude on the team since late November, though the Leafs still have to pass six teams to make up the five points separating them from the playoff pack.
“Basically we’re doing what’s working for us,” said Ponikarovsky, who scored twice against Atlanta on a line with Kessel and centre Matt Stajan. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter who you are playing with, you just have to do the same things.”
Defenceman Luke Schenn has also settled his game down.
“It’s nice to see that we’re getting a couple of wins and that everyone is working hard,” Schenn said. “We’re just shooting the puck more, getting a good forecheck going and that’s helping us win.”